Once upon a time there were stars in Hollywood. Not just a few sprinkled here and there, but buckets and buckets full of stars like: Clark Gable, Cary Grant, Gregory Peck, Gary Cooper, Vivian Leigh, Grace Kelly, Bette Davis, and Greta Garbo. They were glamorous. They were classy. They were what many young girls and boys aspired to be.
Often referred to as “The Golden Age of Hollywood,” this era also saw a lot of changes. Advances were made in the areas of sound and color. The death of silent films ushered in the much-ballyhooed “talkies.” This period in time also saw the development of specific film genres like gangster films, musicals, historical biographies, screwball comedies, westerns, horror films and more. It was also the period when the effects of the Great Depression were strongly felt in Hollywood as fewer people could afford the luxury of going to the movies. It was the age of the blonde bombshells: Jean Harlow, Jane Mansfield, and eventually Marilyn Monroe. It was a time when not-so handsome actors ruled like Humphry Bogart, James Cagney, and Edward G. Robinson. John Wayne, Roy Rogers, and Gene Autry filled the old west with heroes where good always triumphed over evil. Broadway actresses like Helen Hayes and Anne Miller found a new place to practice their craft. Katherine Hepburn made her screen debut and adorable moppet Shirley Temple tapped danced her permanent mark on the film industry. An Olympic swimming champion Johnny Weissmuler brought to life the vine-swinging ape-man, Tarzan and Spencer Tracy won consecutive Best Actor Oscars for “Captains Courageous” and “Boys Town.” The Motion Picture Production Code began setting guidelines for films with regard to sex, violence, religion, and crime and the first Hollywood newspaper emerged in the form of The Hollywood Reporter.
Right or wrong, back in the heyday of Hollywood, during the late 20’s through the 40’s, studios kept a tight rein on their stars. Women were taught etiquette and grace. They were schooled in how to look, how to dress, and how to interact with the public. Men were taught how to be gentlemen or at least how to hide it if they weren’t. Those that didn’t want to live by the rules often found themselves black balled, dropped by their studio, or worse yet, dropped by Hollywood as a whole.
From time to time scandal rocked Hollywood to the core. Accusations that certain stars, directors, and even producers were communists wreaked havoc and caused problems the reverberated through Hollywood for many years. Things began to slowly change. By the time the 50’s rolled around, Hollywood was again well established with a handful of stars that could virtually name their own price at the box office while a few stars no longer could locate work at all. Comedians like the Three Stooges, Oliver and Hardy, Abbott and Costello, and Lucille Ball were recognized for their comic genius. Walt Disney captured audience attention with well crafted, beautifully choreographed, visually stunning animated features with an innocence that reflected the largest part of the 50’s.
By 1960, Hollywood began to reflect the changes of America. Movies became more risqué and language also began mirroring the people of that time. Films like “Easy Rider” and “Midnight Cowboy” introduced a new kind of entertainment into the industry; with an edginess and rawness that many Americans were not yet ready to accept. But one thing was without question: Times were changing even more.
Today big name studios no longer rule Hollywood. Although Universal Pictures, Twentieth Century Fox, MGM, still exist, they hold no monopoly on talent. In fact, they hold no real monopoly at all. Today, movies can be and are shot all over the world. Likewise, the film talent base is much broader with stars coming not just from the U.S. but from countries everywhere like England, France, Spain, Mexico, Australia, and more. And these stars no longer feel the need to associate themselves with a single studio or production company. Some opt to form their own production companies while many others prefer to simply remain open to any and all possibilities.
While it might be argued that today’s stars do not have the same glamorous appeal as their predecessors, it should be noted that there are most assuredly some exceptions. Nicole Kidman, Charlize Theron, Halle Berry, Naomi Watts, Reese Witherspoon, Sandra Bullock, Julia Roberts and others exhibit many of the best qualities of old Hollywood’s grand dames. Tom Hanks, Tom Cruise, Clive Owen, Jude Law, Leonardo DiCaprio, Denzel Washington and more have the same masculine appeal of the leading men of yesteryear.
What has changed most about Hollywood is its willingness to reflect the good, the bad, and yes even the ugly side of life not only in America but also throughout the world. Movies tackle sensitive subjects that old Hollywood would have never attempted to bring to light on film. And the industry is slowly but surely beginning to better reflect the depth of its talent as well. Subjects once taboo are now fair game. Attitudes once hidden are now brought to life. Racism, sexuality (in all of its domains), discrimination, religion, family status and other forums that were once hidden in the back room are not put out front for all to see. Life is the canvas on which new Hollywood paints. It’s not always pretty but it often has much to teach the world.
Still some of us hunger for the simpler days of old Hollywood. I admit to my desire to see a rosy picture painted for my grandchildren. Who doesn’t want things to be easier for those that they love? Still, I realize that we cannot hide from our problems. We cannot pretend that everything is just as it should be. We have to face the reality of our world and we must deal with issues that impact upon it. Like it or not, Hollywood forces us to look at the issues that we must face by plastering them on the big screen where they cannot be ignored. Movies like “Blood Diamond,” “The Constant Gardner,” “Babel,” and others hit us in the face with stark reality.
I do, however, hope that at some point we can reach a happy medium where Hollywood can still provide us with a consciousness that is sorely needed while also offering the escapist entertainment that we so desperately need. Given time, I believe this occur. We already see evidence, now more than ever before. Even five years ago I would have been hard pressed to find enough innocent films to satisfy my grandson’s love of movies. But today, there is a myriad of movies that I can take him to. In recent months, we were regaled with the likes of “The Wild,” “Barnyard,” “Chicken Little,” “Over the Hedge,” “Flushed Away,” “Monster House,” “Charlotte’s Web,” “Ice Age: The Meltdown,” “Cars,” and “Happy Feet” just to name a few. Even those of us adults who prefer less controversial fare have been delighted with movies that entertained without offending. I believe that a genuine attempt is being made to meet everyone’s needs. After all, no system is perfect and neither is Hollywood. However, of one thing we can be sure: As America changes, so will Hollywood. If we don’t like what we see there, maybe the problem isn’t Hollywood at all.